I met the man who tried to shoot John F. Kennedy.
His name was Biuku Gasa. He was a fisherman in the Solomon Islands who turned spy in the Battle of the Pacific during World War II. He tried to shoot Kennedy because Kennedy – appearing, from a distance, bleached and bone thin -- looked like the enemy: the Japanese. But the rifle – discarded in battle – was rotted. When he fired, it locked.
Gasa fled. Unaware, U.S. Navy Lt. Jack Kennedy headed back toward his shipwrecked crew.
I am of the generation whose first indelible television memory is watching the sweet and heart-wrenching innocence of a dead president’s son, about my age, saluting his father’s flag-draped coffin. In the intervening 50 years since JFK was assassinated, the Camelot facade has been tarred, the deep-seated flaws of the man fully exhumed. But what I learned in traveling to the Solomon Islands and meeting Biuku Gasa is this: The myth assuredly began with a basis in fact.
My trip to the middle of the Pacific was the first of many Olympic producing collaborations with Tom Brokaw, in this case a story for NBC’s broadcast of the 2000 Sydney Games. During World War II, Gasa was part of an allied spy network headed by a later-to-be Sydney accountant Reginald Evans. Evans had a secret outpost in the jungle of a nearby island volcano, Kolombangara, which was occupied by an estimated 10,000 Japanese troops. If discovered, the typical result was execution by beheading.
The Japanese also terrorized the local population, allowing Evans to swiftly recruit young islanders such as Biuku Gasa. In early August of 1943, a Navy lieutenant and future president was searching doggedly, desperately for someone exactly like Biuku to help him. But the Jack Kennedy that Gasa thought best to kill had become a pathetic sight, propelled by the last reserves of will: starving, dehydrated, dazed, his hands and feet minced bloody from wading in the razor-sharp reefs that front so many of the beaches in the Solomon Islands.
Six days earlier, the 26-year-old Kennedy had lost his P.T. boat during a nighttime mission when it was rammed by a Japanese destroyer. In that moment, Kennedy resolved to do something seemingly simple but truly heroic: he kept moving.
Two were dead from the collision. Kennedy and 10 others found themselves alive, floating in the roiling, treacherous Blackett Strait -- in shock, amid flames, sickened from swallowing water spoiled by spreading gasoline.
Kennedy – a swimmer at Harvard -- plucked men from the water, led them away from the wreck, swam to a nearby island tugging an older crew member, Pappy McMahon, whose hands were burned and useless. In subsequent days, Kennedy spurred his men to move to another island, fearing discovery by the Japanese. They subsisted on coconut milk. At night, Kennedy swam into the Strait, battling fitfully and mightily to make progress against the confluence of currents, waving a waterproof flashlight, daring someone to save him, or kill him. In his uncompromising determination to try everything was the lingering promise of rescue.
Some 13 years ago, while producing that story, I dove into those same waters, with a snorkel and fins, to see a downed World War II American fighter plane resting in a shallow, reachable by a short dive. I remember being able to read clearly the insignia U.S. Air Force on the fuselage. For a moment, I felt uncomfortably transported back in time, when the Blackett Strait was a free-fire zone for warring navies, when the days and nights echoed with the sounds of lives being lost.
But I also remember straining to maintain my position in the restless waters, legs furiously kicking, fighting nausea, fearing I’d be sucked backward in a southerly direction, away from the surrounding islands, out of the channel, into the Coral Sea.
After Gasa’s gun locked, he cautiously moved on and soon stumbled upon Kennedy’s crew, one of whom was blond and burly and clearly American. When Kennedy returned to the group, they were cozy around a campfire, being fed canned food by the man who – mistakenly -- tried to kill him.
Gasa told us how he instructed Kennedy to cut a message into a coconut with a pen knife.
“Jesus Christ,” Biuku remembered Kennedy saying to him, “how did you think of that?”
Kennedy scratched: NATIV KNOWS POSIT/11 ALIVE/NEED SMALL BOAT.
The coconut was delivered across enemy waters by paddle, via dugout canoe, to Reginald Evans, who radioed for a rescue, establishing a rendezvous point where Kennedy would be found floating in a secluded lagoon, hidden in a canoe, under palm fronds.
Just before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when we were about to edit the piece, Brokaw asked if we’d shot b-roll of the famous coconut. It didn’t occur to me that the coconut could have possibly been saved. Moreover, at the time I wondered if there was really a coconut at all. Brokaw told us we’d find it hiding in plain sight, on display at the Kennedy Library in Boston.
Tom Brokaw’s latest documentary is airing on NBC Friday at 9pm ET: "Where Were You: The Day JFK Died." Like so many millions, I know the answer: glued to a television. But I never had the chance to fully understand why my parents, and much of the nation, were smitten by Jack Kennedy. Rather, I’ve largely witnessed the steady assault of his reputation.
Most historians, however, seem to agree that JFK’s patient statesmanship during the Cuban Missile Crisis was truly exemplary. The question will remain unanswered about how he would have proceeded in Vietnam. But like many men who’ve witnessed the horror of war, he was deeply informed by its irretrievable cost and perhaps fundamentally inclined to struggle for peace. I do know this: by all accounts, the 26-year-old lieutenant who kept moving when all seemed lost possessed in battle a noble heart.
Brian Brown is a writer and producer who has covered 12 Olympics.
Published at 1:28 PM PST on Nov 22, 2013 | Updated at 1:35 PM PST on Nov 22, 2013